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Usefulness: the new language of brand

Clare O'Brien

When online, people expect to be doing something. Offline they’re consuming – and that is more passive. So online, if it’s not clear what someone can do immediately, or if they feel prevented from doing what they want to do because a web site or even an email is badly organised, they can get impatient. They can go away.

So, if you want to persuade people to do something online you have to use different persuasive techniques than those that work for you offline. People browsing the web are unlikely to be persuaded by conventional marketing messages because:

  1. Their opinion about your company or brand will be based on the active experience and not the passive consumption of marketing.

  2. They won’t be reading marketing messages anyway, because online people don’t spend much time reading.

At my company, Content Delivery & Analysis (CDA), we have a growing conviction that the art of online engagement is about functionality and that an important part of persuasion online is giving people the means to get something done. The skill is in getting companies to recognise how their brands can be expressed in these functional ways.

Make the feeling mutual

We've been working on a "Hierarchy of Mutuality". It’s a model that sketches out how this mutual interest of companies and customers can be met (and measured) online and how page content and the way it is used and expressed is a key part of the new art of online engagement.

CDA pyramid of mutuality

The model marries what a customer looks for during the decision making process with the kind of content and content delivery that produces a satisfactory visit. There’s no magic and no tricks – just plain, visible, accessible information that meets expectations and is useful.

This doesn’t ignore the importance of developing distinctive character, which is found in a word, a phrase, the pacing of dialogue, the combination of visual presentation and questions answered.

As hard as any organisation tries to use conventional promotional language to engage and persuade online, the most engaging content is stuff that is simply useful and works for people. And really useful stuff isn’t always that exciting and stimulating in a conventional marketing sense. Yet it’s increasingly how brands will be evaluated by people.

From the "wow factor" to the "useful factor"

We’ve been interested in the idea of usefulness for a while at CDA. We’re aware that in order to be useful and meet expectations (and therefore be engaging), page content often has to take on a pretty utilitarian feel. This doesn’t strip it of character in any way. It works in a similar way as a good retail store, organised with signage, recognisable help points, useful and easily found descriptions, helpful point-of-sale material, clear offer statements and responsive staff.  Stores like Marks & Spencer and Waitrose work like this but they both retain strong and identifiable characters.

In fact, when someone comes to a website to do something, it is far more like walking into a store than picking up a brochure.

It's usually marketers who are tasked with making web pages work properly – and they’re trained in the art of demand creation, not demand fulfilment. Web pages need to do both. This is a new and complex thing to get right – a new skill genre.

For example, some time ago we presented a financial services client with some considerably reworked content for a loan product page. Before we got our hands on it, there was a lot of noise upfront telling people what they could do with the product – build a house extension, enjoy a fabulous holiday, drive a new car; aspirational copy.

If people scrolled further down, they could read facts about the loan. Scrolling a little further (assuming they hadn’t already clicked off the page), the potential customer would come across an "apply now" button.

By the time we’d finished with the page, it looked very different (including ensuring the "apply now" button was visible at first glance). Based on our research, we know people have little patience with promotional language online and immediately look for what they can do on a page. In this case people had already clicked at least three times to get to the specific product page. So we turned it into something we felt customers were expecting. We gave people things to do: the ability to easily access practical, useful, decision-making and transaction information. We didn’t talk about holidays or cars.

The client's reaction? ‘Hmm, yes, it’s good, yes… but it’s not very… erm, well, I suppose I was expecting some sort of… er, wow factor’, they said. They were judging a piece of text designed to give information (the means to buy), written to give confidence in the organisation and product. It didn’t sell a dream. Customers, or would-be customers, needed the useful factor – not the wow factor. "

Wow" is yesterday’s news – online, at least.

To be persuasive online, it’s important to think first about how helpful, supportive and useful online content or processes are for someone who’s expecting to do something. And doing something isn’t restricted to transactions.

Doing something can be as straight-forward as finding something out – store opening times, say, or looking up a timetable, finding a location or comparing prices. Being able to do these things successfully is what customers want. That’s good utility. That’s useful. That’s the new wow.

First published in the cScape and e-Consultancy 2008 Online Customer Experience Survey. CDA is a member of the cScape Customer Engagement Unit.

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We enjoy nothing more than talking to clients, prospective clients, partners and like-minded people about what's happening in the fields of email, web and messaging.

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The not so small print

This article is copyright but we're happy for you to quote what we say, so long as you give us credit for it.

You can reprint all or part of this article, so long as you're given permission by CDA and clear this with us first.

We're also happy to write articles and papers for organisations and publications that get as excited by words as we do.

Any actions taken on the basis of this article are at the reader's own risk. You're much better off talking to us about your particular content needs and letting us advise you. After all, we're jolly good at it.

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